BACK TO MAN VS WOMAN MAIN PAGE
BACK TO HOME PAGE
MAN VS. WOMAN - BEHIND THE SCENES
(WARNING: If you haven't seen the film, there are SPOILERS in this article)
One day, I was watching Sergio Leone's "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly", and when the movie got to its climax -- the duel over gold in the middle of the cemetery -- I thought "wow, this is great drama at its most basic". Those characters had a simple goal, but they wanted it so badly they were willing to die for it. Their pain showed on their faces, both current (sweat drops), and cumulative (scars). Also, their confrontation was very cinematic, an opportunity for Leone to explore great camera angles, as well as editing techniques that would increase the tension as the film progressed to the inevitable shootout.
Although I had seen the movie plenty of times before, it wasn't until this time that I realized this scene could be a blueprint, or at least an inspiration, for a short film. In addition, the project wouldn't be cost prohibitive at all. All you needed was a desolate location and some well-armed "bad-asses". I also realized I could inject my favorite genre into the mix, science-fiction; since the drama would work regardless of who, or what, the characters were. They just had to be cool characters. So then I thought, why not make them iconic, representatives of various branches of science-fiction? The robot, the monster/dinosaur, the tough vixen... the lone warrior. Why not have them fight each other, but not for gold; but for something that we tend to take for granted, something that we normally do not treasure, until we are in dire need of it... water. I could make it the item everyone hunted for and needed... in much the same way characters in the Mad Max movies hunted for gasoline (a series that was itself heavily influenced by Leone).
Finally, I needed that extra layer of meaning, the layer that elevates the common action film into something more meaningful. Taking the plot through its natural progression, I realized that the outcome of the fight could hinge on one of the ultimate weapons known... sex. At that point, I knew I could use my little film to make an observation on man-woman relations, and to explore the age-old question "who is really in power?".
BACK TO TOP
With the idea firmly in place, I set out to write the movie. It did not take long since the plot was simple and there would be almost no dialogue in it at all. This was partly an artistic decision -- I wanted to make a film which communicated through images and the actors' expressions of longing -- and partly practical. A film which is mostly silent is cheaper and easier to shoot. Since the film was to be primarily visual, I could have just storyboarded it instead of writing it in script form, but I wanted to get actors interested in it, enough that they would agree to do the film for free; and I knew that the best way to do that was to have a tight script.
After casting Tiffany Shepis and Robert Reavis in the lead roles (actually, the only roles), I immediately went into pre-production. I was financing the film myself, which I could afford to do, since I picked a simple story which required no sets (the total budget for the film was $5,500). The real production value would be added later, with the computer. For that reason, pre-production was not extensive. I scouted locations for a couple of weeks, guided partly by my brother-in-law, Mike Boyer, a real desert connoisseur. I found a suitable place about 100 miles West of Las Vegas. I love the desert, so combing it up and down is not something I ever considered "work". I dragged my family with me and we made fun trips out of it.
The other major element to secure were the costumes and the props. My main inspiration here were the afore-mentioned Mad Max movies, as well as the Star Wars movies. My idea was to have the "lived in" look, the same look George Lucas wanted for his saga. The technology is cool and advanced; but it's dirty, trashed, taken for granted. It malfunctions a lot, maybe because it's been sitting out in the sun for too long.
Jenelle Smith took charge of the costumes, creating original garments from scratch and combining them with key rented pieces we selected from a costume shop. We had to have several copies of Tiffany's dress because the raptor was supposed to tear it and I didn't know how many takes I would need to get it right. I ended up adding many trinkets to the costumes that I bought at garage sales, and Jenelle also contributed some items from her own collection.
The props were all either homemade or put together from stuff I found at garage sales, thrift shops and even an army surplus store. It was there that I found a lot of old electronic equipment which I disassembled and rearranged to form cool futuristic gear. Digital effects gave them functionality, most notably with Robert and Tiffany's water detectors.
Tiffany's gun took the longest to fabricate. I went to the local hardware store, grabbed a shopping cart, and started collecting every pipe and interesting-looking metal object I could find. My friend Jim Gorman and I played with different configurations, until I finally found one that looked good. The only problem was, since it was made mostly of plumbing pipes, the contraption didn't quite look like a kick-ass weapon at first, but more like a piece of modern art. I added other metallic items from the army surplus store and the gun finally looked right.
Jim also made a raptor's claw out of sculpey for me. It turned out so nice, that I eventually made more for myself. Sculpey rocks. You can do anything with it.
BACK TO TOP
Filming took place over 3 days in the Mojave desert. These were short days, since our daylight really lasted only until about 4:30 p.m., which is when the sun sets during the winter. At least half of one day was rendered unusable by rain. I found it to be quite ironic that we went out to the desert to shoot a movie about characters dying of thirst, only to have rain threaten to ruin our shoot. The flipside, actually shooting during the hot season, would have been more problematic, since the heat can become unbearable and actually quite dangerous out in the Mojave. You dehydrate fast out there.
I only needed a small crew for the shoot, especially given that for the most part I wasn't planning to record sound on location. Matt Uhry, a friend I had worked with previously on music videos, came on board as the cinematographer (the film was shot on 16 mm film). Jenelle Smith took care of the make-up in addition to her costuming duties, and my wife Melanie Boyer-Vargas helped me prepare for the logistics of the shoot and run the "set" operations (she's no longer my wife, but we remain best of friends). The production assistants were my brother Steven Vargas, and my brother-in-law's friend Adam Postil. Assistant cameraman Ian Clampett joined us for one day, as did my friend Matt Shook.
Tiffany loved her prop gun, but she did not love carrying it. Since it was made of many metal components, it was very heavy (which I guess a real gun of that kind would be). Still, the poor girl had to run a lot carrying this behemoth, and she had to do it barefoot, often stepping on sharp and pointy objects, much like her character does in the movie. Being the trooper she is, she hung in there; but at the end of the shoot, she figured I needed my comeuppance for putting her through that. She made me run a few laps around our campsite barefoot, carrying her gun. I think that made her feel better.We ultimately dealt with the wet weather just fine. Matt was able to frame and "light" the rain out of the picture in many instances. The times when he couldn't do it, I did it digitally. I also ended up having to use the computer to change about a dozen cloudy, rainy skies into bright-blue sunny ones; the kind of work that, if you do your job right, nobody will ever notice you did. In the end, the shoot went really well, and I got most of the shots I storyboarded.
BACK TO TOP
The footage was telecined from 16 mm film to D5 tape at a resolution of 1920 X 1080 pixels, which is a comfortable high-def resolution to master at. I am a "pixel pusher" by profession, and I love the digital age and all the opportunities it has opened for independent filmmakers; but aesthetically speaking, I still prefer shooting on actual film over any of the digital capture formats, grain and all. I am old-fashioned in that sense. Excessive grain can become a problem, and we were susceptible to it since we shot 16 mm (instead of 35 mm) and cropped the top and the bottom to get the 16 X 9 framing, but Matt used the best outdoors film available, and since we were shooting with lots of sunshine (for the most part anyway), grain was not a problem. My thinking was, I might as well "enjoy" film grain while we still have it, since the digital age will do away with it soon. This is the same reason why I was not obsessed with cleaning up film artifacts and imperfections digitally. If anything, these elements made my film resemble an old Leone western even more.
In order to view and edit my footage, I digitized it straight into my computer using a PC card called Perception. It is old technology now, and it was never intended to be an editing tool. It was made to compile and view animation frames, but since I didn't have a proper editing system at the time, that's what I used to edit the movie. It worked out fine until it was time to create an EDL (edit decision list). It couldn't give me something usable, so I had to make an EDL by hand. I manually wrote down in-and-out time code numbers for 597 shots, compensating for the extraction of 3-2 pulldown, without the luxury of being able to make a single mistake. I didn't make a mistake, and to this day, I still can't believe it. 597 shots, X 12 digits each, that's 7,164 numbers, and I didn't get one wrong. I'm not bragging, I'm just astounded by my luck.
With the EDL done, I was able to hand it to Victor DiMichina, the scanning/recording technician at Pixel Magic (the place where I normally work as a visual effects artist) so he could extract high-resolution frames from the D5 tapes. With those frames, I could start doing a high-def assembly of the film and start adding visual effects. Data handling was difficult, since the film was made of about 20,000 frames and each framed was 6 megs in size. That meant I needed 120 gigs to store one copy of the film, and I needed to have multiple copies. If you don't have the hard drive space, then you have to do the process in chunks, which is what I did. It slows you down, but at least you keep going.
BACK TO TOP
Originally, I wanted my animator friends and colleagues to help me do the visual effects in the film. I knew I could do all the effects called for in the script (I never write an effect into a movie I can't do myself), but I also knew that the 270 effects shots that I wanted would take me forever to do by myself. Over a period of a few months, I built all the assets for the movie. The robot took the longest, since I wanted it to actually do everything you see it do in the movie. I didn't want to cheat. The 3D model really is a "transfomer" of sorts, and all the hidden pieces that pop out are actually tucked in its frame, ready to be deployed.
I tried unsuccessfully to hand off shots to people, until I accepted the fact that I was going to have to do it all myself. They were busy, after all; had their own lives and ambitions, and I wasn't paying them, so I understood. The only person other than me that actually ended up animating shots on the movie was my friend Tim Pyle (Jimmy Neutron, Invader Zim, Spongebob Squarepants, Space Bees). He did three shots. I gave him the rigged mini-dino model and he animated the shots where we see the little creatures drinking from the water hole. I tried to get Tim to animate the remaining two mini-dino shots at the end of the movie, but by then Tim was busy creating his own movie (Decaying Orbit -- now available on Amazon.com), so I had to do them myself. My friend Clay Dale also contributed one shot to the movie, the shot of the water turning into steam, and he also created the planet and the moon we see in the distance in the last shot of the film, as well as some dust effects. Other contributions from friends were as follows: Mike Hardison helped me set up a raptor rig in Maya, which I later abandoned in favor of an easier-to-use and faster-to-animate Lightwave setup (all the 3D in the movie was done with Lightwave 3D and composited with After Effects), and he also did some of the modeling of the flying creatures we see at the end of the film (he did highly detailed faces, which unfortunately we don't get to see because they're too far away). Jim Gorman modeled the 3D knife (I borrowed his real knife for the shoot), Mike Kimmel helped me set up a raptor rig, which I also later abandoned (that is why you call this process "R & D" -- Research and Development -- you end up doing a lot of things over and over until they work right and benefit your workflow), Kevin Kipper assisted me in learning Illusion (the program I used to create the digital displays and readouts), John Karner optimized the raptor wireframe, and David Behar motion-tracked one shot and created dust for another.
Some of the effects were not high-tech at all. The blood that you see coming out of the raptor tongue when it gets cut is actually color corrected thick milk, prepared by my mother and spilled by my then 10-year-old son. It was recorded on DV video and composited in. Again, despite being a "pixel pusher", I'm a big believer in doing practical effects whenever possible and whenever appropriate. Not everything has to be digital.
Part of the actors' job was to act as if they were "hot" and dying of thirst. Actually, they were pretty cold for the most part. We all were. The desert is a place of extremes. It's either very hot or very cold. It's hard to hit that middle mark. The actors did the best they could to pretend it was hot, but sometimes their bodies dictated otherwise. For example, late one day, Tiffany got so cold that she actually got goosebumps on her legs. Unfortunately, this was the time when we needed to shoot a close-up of her legs! This meant that I ended up having to paint the goosebumps out of her legs digitally for four shots. That's the nice thing about digital effects... you can do anything. The downside is, it's a lot more work on your shoulders, which is taxing when you are a mostly one-man post-production team.
The majority of the effects were animated on a $700 laptop, right off the shelf without any enhancements. The main reason I wanted to do everything on a laptop was mobility and flexibility. I wanted to be able to animate anywhere. You see, I had a lot of shots to do, and I could only do them on my free time. I have a full time visual effects job (my day job), a sixty-mile per day commute, and a demanding young son. Add this together and you end up with very little free time. That is why I needed every minute of free time I could get. This meant that I ended up animating in the car (when I was lucky enough to be the passenger and not the driver), at the park, at restaurants, on the train and on the bus (which I used to commute to work whenever I could), in the backyard, in parking lots, under trees... everywhere. My laptop and I became inseparable. This was the only way to get the movie done.
The reason the laptop didn't have to be souped-up with a heavy-duty graphics card was because all I was doing was animating characters and effects using proxies (low resolution substitutes). This stage of visual effects production does not require heavy computing power. All consumer computers available today can handle the task. The difficult part comes when it's time to render your effects. 3D animation can take hours to render per frame, depending on how many bells and whistles you turn on. I have a small network at home, and I could have eventually rendered my whole movie, but the thing about rendering is, you never render things just once. You always end up doing multiple renders. I rendered many shots at home, but things were going slowly. Eventually, I was lucky to get Raymond McIntyre Jr., my boss at Pixel Magic, to allow me to render my effects at work whenever the render farm wasn't busy. In this manner, slowly but surely, all 270 effects were eventually done.
BACK TO TOP
With the picture locked, I turned my attention to sound. Since I did not have any production sound (other than the only line of dialogue in the movie, which was recorded with a video camera running alongside the film camera), I had to create the sound from other sources. For this I used sound libraries and digital manipulations of existing sounds. I did all the sound editing on my trusty laptop (once again, I took it everywhere) using Adobe Premiere.
The music, a very important and often underappreciated part of any film, was difficult to secure. I had temporarily scored the film using Ennio Morricone's "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly" music (the preview on this website uses "Mars, the Bringer of War" from Holst's "The Planets"), which was fitting since that film was the inspiration for the short in the first place. In fact, I visualized a lot of the film's scenes while listening to the "Ecstasy of Gold" track. Seeing how well the music fit, I tried to secure the rights to officially use the Morricone music in the film, but this proved to be very difficult and expensive. I finally decided that I needed an original score, and that I had to find a composer that could evoke the Morricone style, blend in the space opera feel of "Star Wars" and "The Planets", and also give the film its own individual voice. Doing an original score was always the ideal way to go, but I was discouraged from trying it because I did not think I could afford one that I would ultimately be happy with. But then I remembered the power of the internet, and the fact that I had an almost completed film that I could use to generate interest and recruit good talent, regardless of my budget.
I placed an ad online and directed applicants to visit my website and check out the film's preview. They must have liked what they saw, because I got over 500 enthusiastic responses! And from all around the world! I realized that, in this day and age, I could work with a composer in Europe or Australia through the internet almost as easily as I could with somebody local.
I ended up choosing David James Nielsen, a fellow USC alumn, to do the score. His sample work impressed me quite a bit, reminding me of the work of my favorite film composers... John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Alan Silvestri, Morricone... because of its musical inventiveness, emotion and impact. His music was all the more impressive because he had done it all on his computer, mimicking the big orchestra sound very effectively.
I am a big believer in memorable musical themes for movies. If you look at people's lists of all-time favorite films, many of them have great musical scores, with memorable themes that everyone remembers or recognizes. A movie can sometimes be like a favorite song that comes on the radio. You instantly recognize its tune, it brings back memories, and ultimately you're happy to sing along with it. I wanted the film to have that kind of a memorable musical theme, something the audience could remember and even hum. I think David has done just that kind of score. He came up with a theme that I have come to enjoy a lot, even after listening to it hundreds of times. Helping our cause was the fact that there were no pressing festival deadlines, which meant that I was able to give David over 4 months to write and fine tune the score, which I think he was very happy about.
David ended up putting the right finishing touch on the long labor of love that is "Man vs. Woman". Seeing how it all has come together, I think the journey was worth it.
BACK TO TOP
I hope you have a good time watching Man vs. Woman. Ultimately, all I wanted to do was to make a fun film, and to share some of the fantasy/sci-fi imagery that has been swirling around in my head ever since I was a kid. Enjoy.
BACK TO TOP
BACK TO MAN VS WOMAN MAIN PAGE
BACK TO HOME PAGE